Organizations in most industries are currently experiencing a rapid pace of change and increasing competition, forcing leaders to implement programs and initiatives designed for improvements. On the surface, implementing these initiatives is often on a case-by-case basis to address a specific need or area of improvement.

However, it’s not uncommon for the new initiative to fizzle out, or be replaced by another, new, shiny initiative. In some organizations, this causes initiative fatigue for employees. They can grow tired of implementing the next improvement tactic only to see it become unsuccessful and fade away.

Why Do Those Initiatives Often Fail?

Organizations often take a reactive approach to the need for improvement. Improvement programs are implemented because of a specific problem area or external factor. Many of these approaches don’t take into consideration the entire organization or the full context of the implementation. Programs that are reactive to changes that have already occurred, only seek to course correct, not create sustained organization wide improvement.

These common approaches to addressing issues lack whole-system thinking and don’t lead to sustained results. Since organizations are participating in improvement programs, leaders can confuse these initiatives for organization-wide continuous improvement. Employees keep hearing about the next approach to improvement the organization will adopt. So, the concept of continuous improvement loses its meaning and becomes a “buzzword” that gets thrown around every time a new initiative is introduced.

But a variety of improvement initiatives in targeted areas doesn’t equal continuous improvement.

What Makes Continuous Improvement Different?

Continuous improvement is a systematic analysis of data that informs improvement and includes the development of leadership skills. Continuous improvement considers the impact of action on the entire system; unlike reactive approaches.

When we practice continuous improvement, our improvement decisions are based on what is most needed for organization-wide improvement, not based on external trends. Systematic improvement isn’t a rapid initiative that can be applied overnight. It is a long-term improvement process that continuously evolves with the needs of the organization.

Using continuous improvement, organizations and their leaders can prepare for change and approach it proactively using data rather than reactively once an external force demands the improvement. Successful organizations aren’t high-performing by accident. They have a continuous improvement mindset; constantly searching for new ways to innovate, improve, and achieve results.

Commit to a Continuous Improvement Mindset

Leaders who adopt a cycle of planning, review progress, making adjustments, and practicing reflection can more accurately predict and control the organization’s success. Establishing a continuous improvement mindset is key to sustaining and increasing results year after year.

Leading with Continuous Improvement:

  • Break Down Goals to Determine Focus – A strategic vision and goals for the next several years are important for organizations to be aware of. Our teams perform better when we break those goals down further and show individuals how their responsibilities lead to the achievement of the organization’s priorities. Define quarterly outcomes for each annual goal.
  • Use Progress to Plan – Using timely data aligned to the goals, individuals and leaders can make educated judgments about the probability of hitting goals or making necessary adjustments. We recommend reviewing progress and reflecting in 45, 60, or 90-day cycles.
  • Own the Goal – Most of our organizations have multiple annual goals for individuals to stay focused on and aligned to. To ensure we achieve our goals, assign an executive leader to each annual goal. The owner of the goal is responsible for maintaining focus on the goal, monitoring progress, and communicating information about the goal to the team and the executive leader.
  • Focus on What’s Important – Achieving the goals we set each year and sustaining our success demands a narrow focus on the strategic actions that matter. If we get distracted by new ideas and initiatives throughout the year, we won’t reach the results we are trying to achieve. Aligning the team’s focus to specific priorities facilitates the organization’s success. Less is more.
  • Analyze Processes – Success often depends on better execution. If there are barriers in an organization’s processes, they can slow down productivity and cause even the best employee’s frustration and disengagement. Create alignment between goals, actions, and processes by documenting processes and identifying areas for improvement.
  • Make Reflection a Priority – To improve as a team or an individual, we need to pause and examine what is getting us positive results, what’s not working, and what actions and adjustments will get us closer to the intended outcome. Communicating the results of a reflection is vital to keep teams aligned and committed to the organization’s success.
  • Celebrate Progress – As we make progress towards goals, we should recognize how far the team has come and celebrate. Progress is the fuel for motivation. Prevent burnout by identifying and acknowledging milestones along the way. Meaningful progress builds momentum and connects team members to the purpose of the work.

What Does Continuous Improvement Look Like?

Rather than implementing one failed management fad after another, when organizations commit to continuous improvement, data is used to plan, experiment, analyze, and implement the most productive improvements across the organization. There are several tools available to assist teams in simplifying and using data to get to the root cause and guide improvement.


The PDSA model is designed to run in cycles which compliments the pressure for continuous change organizations feel today. As results are studied in each PDSA cycle, plans are made for the next round of action. PDSA allows us to test if our ideas for improvement work before we implement them throughout the organization. Rapid cycles of PDSA can lead to faster, successful system changes.

If there are additional changes in the external environment, PDSA cycles allow us to gather results related to those changes. This gives organizations more accurate information for decision-making. Based on the data received, make modifications to the plan and repeat the PDSA cycle. You may even find that completely abandoning the first approach and repeating the cycle is necessary.

PDSA is one of the most frequently used continuous improvement methods. Dating back to the 1930s, these cycles were introduced to offer an ongoing approach to reducing variance in business and manufacturing. PDSA is now applied in any organization and at any level, to make improvement a constant feature of the organization.

PDSA Model

These four steps can be repeated as part of an ongoing process of continuous improvement. Other process improvement tools include DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) and Carnegie Foundation’s Six Core Principles for Improvement.


Plus/Delta is a continuous improvement tool that incorporates team member feedback to inform improvement actions. The Plus side of the chart is for capturing wins. The Delta side is available to record opportunities for improvement and develop the next action steps. The review of processes and practices to determine what works well and what needs to be adjusted encourages a culture of improvement.

Use this technique to gather specific feedback about an event, process, or situation. While it is important to collect the feedback, it’s the commitment to action that creates trust and improvement. After your team has conducted a Plus/Delta, create a plan to improve the process based on the data from the Delta side of the chart. Then communicate and execute the plan.


    A Fishbone Diagram is a continuous improvement tool that guides teams in getting to the root cause of variance before moving forward with action to improve. Once the team is clear on the root cause, the best course of action can be determined. Working within a structure can make root cause analysis run much more smoothly. A cause and effect diagram, sometimes referred to as Ishikawa Diagram after its creator, Kaoru Ishikawa, is a structured team process that assists in identifying underlying factors or causes of variation within a specific event. Simply, it is brainstorming in a structured format. As suggested by the word “fishbone”, these diagrams are structured in this manner:fishbone-diagram
    When working on your Fishbone, you may find that there could be several problems related to your project that need to be addressed. However, do not attempt to answer them all using one diagram. Give each problem its own diagram to reach individual root causes. Review the 5 steps for guidance on how to complete your team’s Fishbone Diagram.
  • 5 WHYS
    5 Whys is another continuous improvement method that prompts teams to focus on the root cause of a needed improvement. The 5 Whys begins by first stating the problem, followed by a sequence of asking “Why” in response to each answer. As you probe deeper into the root cause, you engage higher-order thinking skills to find meaning. This process will often challenge your understanding of the problem or situation.

    Try it by guiding your team in clearly stating a problem or improvement need. Ask the first “Why,” based on the problem statement. Continue by asking the next “Why,” based on the response to the first, until the team has asked and answered at least 5 Whys. Determine an action step to improve the problem or prevent it from happening in the future.


Most of us have access to a lot of data. As we review this data, we want to use it for improvement. The first step to improvement is acting on the information. To reach our goals, we know there must be specific actions to achieve success. An action plan is a structured process to move from data to action. We then use the plan to document the actions, the persons responsible, and the time frame in which the action will occur. Use the action plan to document progress at least every 30 days.

To truly see improvement that lasts, stop reacting and implementing initiative after initiative. View the organization as an entire system that seeks to improve together. Successful continuous improvement requires understanding the full context of the issue. It also requires using data to develop a plan that is sustainable organization-wide.

Learn more about continuous improvement success in the School District of Menomonee Falls by visiting this series of articles and webinars providing the top 10 continuous improvement strategies for implementing, sustaining, and seeing results from continuous improvement efforts in a school district.

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